If you hear the story of Green Monday, it sounds at first like a modern business fairytale. A startup that was founded by two vegetarian entrepreneurs, set out to tackle climate change and global food insecurity by promoting and enabling green, healthy and sustainable living – and against all odds this social enterprise is leading the way for others to come and showing that change through business is actually possible.
Within less than 3 years the young startup reached millions of people, partnered with some of the world's largest corporations and has won numerous of awards. On top of that, Green Monday was recognized as one of “Top 50 Most Innovative Companies in China by Fast Company .
I met with David Yeung, who is the co-founder of Green Monday in Hong Kong, to talk about how it all started, what’s the secret behind their success and what his vision is for the future.
Let’s start with a short introduction about yourself:
Sure, in a nutshell: I studied engineering at Columbia University and founded my first start-up in 1999. From this point on I became very passionate about building things from scratch. Today I´m serial entrepreneur, I have business in investments, in retail and I'm also heavily involved with a lot of charity and social causes. But the project I'm most focused on at the moment is Green Monday.
David you have been selected by Purpose Economy as “Asian 100 Pioneers”, along with Mike Bloomberg, Elon Musk, and Jack Ma. Before we dive deeper into Green Monday, I’m curious to know about your perspective on what needs to change in business in general?
I think businesses, whether they like it or not, need to understand they have a social responsibility. One of the biggest problems is that of the most crucial expenses are not factored in at the company's balance sheet - that are social cost or environmental cost. Actually, this is a complete loophole in the whole capitalistic world. When people think about maximizing profit, chances are something has to give. Oftentimes it's the social and environmental issues of consequence. So in general – that’s a key thing that needs to change in order build a sustainable economy.
With Green Monday you set out to build such a socially conscious business. What was the inspiration to start a new venture around food and living green?
I have been a vegetarian for 15 years and one of the things I notice is that most people have a lot of misperception about vegetarianism in general. They think there's a lack of nutrients, it's not healthy or they just have doubts from the old thought patterns that are ingrained in our culture. And because it’s not popular there aren't enough options – especially here in China. So I was confronted with that situation everyday.
Along the way I read reports from the UN, and other scientists that say that meat actually is the biggest reason for global warming which is the biggest threat to our planet.
Something struck me when I connect the dots. Well, I'm a vegetarian, are you telling me that I'm doing something that could help the world big time? That was the “Aha moment”.
Then I sat down with a good friend of mine Francis Ngai, who is vegetarian too. He is the co-founder and CEO of an organization called Social Ventures Hong Kong. When we both talked about the idea and it became clear to us we have to do something about it. So on Earth Day April 22, 2012, we launched Green Monday. That’s how it all started.
But instead of just running a campaign or starting an NGO on the side, both of you decided to establish a social enterprise, what was the reason for it.
Francis and I both come from a commercial background; he has been in advertising agencies and marketing departments of big corporations for many years. We both saw that in order to change people to green it cannot just be a campaign or a slogan. If there's an economy, there's obviously a demand and supply side. You cannot just change the awareness, which is the demand. You need to also change the supply side too, because demand is often influenced by supply.
So we knew from the beginning there has to be a business element to it for two reasons: One, we need to influence the supply side. Two, we ourselves need to be sustainable. We don't believe in a model that is purely on donation basis. We want to build and scale a business that has an impact--not spend our time fundraising.
And the impact to date is absolutely incredible. A recent study showed that before the Green Monday Movement, only 5% of people in Hong Kong adopted any sort of vegetarian habit. Only two years later, 23% of people in Hong Kong are practicing at least one day of vegetarianism a week. Within the last 3 years you reached millions of people, partnered with hundreds of restaurants including the biggest fast-food chain in China, Café de Coral, that serves over 330,000 customers per day. On top of that, national and international universities, schools and many Fortune 500 companies joined your movement to bring more green food to the table and promote a new sustainable lifestyle.
I mean, what is different, how can you explain such a success – because the idea about “living green” has been around for quite a while and there have been many attempts before to change people’s behavior.
I think “living green” in the last 20 years has always remained on a very peripheral level. Maybe it’s because most of the traditional approaches to change something worked like a funnel.
The first step is science and research. "Let me get the numbers right." The second is advertising and promotion. "Let me get political leaders or let me get major celebrities to talk about it." The third one is to hope people will change their behavior. And like a funnel, you start at the top from 100% it end with maybe 5% at the bottom (at best).